PORLAMAR, VENEZUELA -- At a recent campaign stop, Henrique Capriles was tossing his trademark, tri-color caps, blowing kisses and waving to the throngs of supporters clamoring around his caravan.
Second chances are hard to come by, and with an 11-point defeat in last October’s presidential elections, Capriles is looking urgently for last-minute support.
With the snap April 14 vote looming, Capriles, the governor of Miranda state, is barnstorming the nation hoping to pull up sagging poll numbers as he faces interim President Nicolás Maduro.
“Capriles is doing what he has to do,” said Luis Vicente León, president of the polling firm Datanalisis, referring to the whistle-stop tour. “He’s swimming against the current.”
Capriles, 40, is banking on the tour to rally enthusiasm and minimize voter abstention in his second try at the presidency. On Sunday, he’s hoping to swamp the streets of the capital for his final rally in Caracas.
Maduro, who was chosen by the late-President Hugo Chávez as his successor, has also been leading mass rallies. But he’s also relying on the Chávez faithful and his socialist party’s majority presence throughout the country to carry him to victory.
With a campaign that only lasts 10 days, the candidates are betting on different strategies, said Carlos Romero, a political scientist at the Central University of Venezuela.
“We’re asking what’s worth more in this express campaign?” he said. “Political machinery or popular fervor in the streets.”
After campaign stops earlier this week in Monagas and Barinas states, Capriles recently stumped on Margarita Island.
Led by swarms of motorcycles and accompanied by a former Miss World, a motorcade carried Capriles through a crowd of thousands that clogged the streets of Porlamar, the island’s principal port city.
“We love you flaco!” women shouted to the governor.
America Rodriguez, a 59-year-old retiree, waited for five hours to see Capriles.
“He’s a force,” she said, braving the heat. “There’s so much violence and crime, my grandchildren can’t go to the park anymore because they’re afraid of getting killed or kidnapped.”
Venezuela’s escalating violence has become a major voter concern, and a keynote of the Capriles campaign.
On Friday, as Maduro marked Chávez’s death one month ago, he accused the opposition of trying to derail the election.
He said authorities had arrested more than one person trying to damage the electrical grid.
“We have imprisoned some saboteurs, including one who we caught red-handed,” he said during a meeting with defense chiefs. The government provided few other details.
In the northern state of Yaracuy earlier this week, he also accused the opposition of trying to convince the National Electoral Council (CNE) to postpone Election Day.
“They want to avoid the inevitable,” he said. “Nicolás Maduro will be president of the people of Venezuela.”
Maduro, as in most of his public appearances, paid homage to the late Venezuelan leader, who led this nation for 14 years.
“Chávez lives in the smiles of our children, Chávez lives in myriad ways,” he said. “Chávez lives above all in the loyalty of the people of Venezuela.”
Capriles has been focusing his speeches on the future rather than the battle at hand.
In Margarita, he said the day after the election would be a day of “peace” in Venezuela.
“That day, we’ll be one single country and we’ll work together to make it better so we can have a better life,” he told supporters.
Polls paint a troubling picture of Capriles’ electoral future, with many giving Maduro a double-digit lead.
Still, hopes were running high among supporters.
“The polls don’t matter,” said Claudia Fernandez, a 36-year-old caterer at the Capriles rally. “We’re going to move the Venezuelan people come Election Day…He’s going to win.”
Following his brief island tour, safety barriers buckled at another event in Venezuela’s industrial belt, as supporters broke past security guards to get to the stage were Capriles was speaking.
In the city of Maracay, in Aragua state, people fainted amid the heat and thick crowds, while Capriles implored his supporters to head to polls in greater numbers than ever before.
“If we all vote on the 14th [of April], on the 15th we will have a new President!” he shouted out.
“We see, we feel, Capriles president!” the crowd chanted in response.
Despite the palpable energy and enthusiasm, some remained skeptical.
Impressed by the turnout in Maracay, Evelyn Benitez, 39, a seamstress, still had her doubts about the prospects of a Capriles’ victory.
“He says if we all vote we can win,” she said. “But you know the Chavistas have everything going for them.”
“You have to have faith, I suppose.” she said, shaking her head.
Miami Herald Staff Writer Jim Wyss contributed to this report from Bogota.